Managing Impulsive Behaviors Associated With PTSD

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If you have PTSD, you may be at a greater risk to engage in a number of impulsive behaviors, such as deliberate self-harm. Therefore, it can be important to learn healthy ways of managing urges to engage in these behaviors.


Impulsive behaviors are those that occur quickly without control, planning, or consideration of the consequences of that behavior. Impulsive behaviors tend to be connected with immediate positive consequences (for example, relief from emotional pain). However, in the long-term, there may be a number of negative consequences, such as greater emotional distress or regret.

Common Serious Impulsive Behaviors

In considering your behaviors, it may be helpful to think of some of the common serious impulsive behaviors with PTSD. Are any of these ways in which you are currently coping with emotional pain?

  • Eating disorders
  • Alcohol abuse or binging (self-medicating)
  • Drug abuse (prescription or illegal)
  • Self-harm
  • Gambling
  • Suicidal thoughts

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Coping Strategies

There are a number of coping strategies available for preventing or reducing impulsive behaviors. If you struggle with impulsive behaviors, try one (or all) of the coping strategies below to see if you can get a better handle on problematic behaviors.

Distract Yourself

Urges to engage in impulsive behaviors may be very strong and hard to cope with. However, these urges generally pass fairly quickly. Therefore, if you can distract yourself when experiencing an urge, you may be able to sit with an urge until it passes. Fortunately, there are a number of healthy distraction strategies that may be helpful in riding out a strong urge or emotional experience.

Involve your senses in grounding techniques, basically a form of distraction, until you can replace impulsive behaviors with healthier behaviors.

Replace Your Impulsive Behavior

Even though impulsive behaviors may lead to long-term problems, at the moment, they are serving a purpose. For example, they may help you cope with emotional pain. Therefore, one way of preventing impulsive behaviors is finding another, healthier behavior that may serve that same purpose. Healthy behaviors that could replace impulse behaviors include:

Try to find a healthy way of relieving emotional pain that will not have long-term negative consequences for you.

Identify the Negative Consequences

We tend to be driven by the short-term consequences of a behavior. That is, we usually repeat behaviors that work well for us at the moment, regardless of what their long-term negative consequences are. Therefore, it can be useful to increase your awareness of the long-term negative consequences of a behavior. One way to do this is by identifying the short- and long-term pros and cons of a behavior.

Change the Consequences of the Behavior

People continue to engage in impulsive behaviors because they do something positive at the moment (for example, taking away anxiety or fear). One way to reduce the likelihood of impulsive behavior is to take away its short-term positive effect. As soon as you engage in impulsive behavior, immediately conduct a chain analysis to connect with why you engaged in that behavior in the first place. In a chain analysis, you try to connect all of the links between the behavior and the consequences.

Try These Steps

  • Identify the behavior to change.
  • Identify what happened prior to the behavior you wish to change.
  • Evaluate your thoughts and feelings at that time.
  • Identify what your thoughts and feelings made you want to do.
  • Consider the consequences that occurred.

This process will put you back in touch with all those emotions that you were trying to get away from in the first place and force you to face and cope with them in another, healthy way. It can also be very helpful to reward yourself when you don't engage in impulsive behavior.

A Word From Verywell

Impulsive behaviors can be very difficult to cope with, but it is possible. Identify some impulsive behaviors that you would like to change, and next time you notice an urge to engage in those behaviors coming on, try one of the coping strategies above. With every success, it will become easier and easier to find healthy ways of coping with PTSD. Some of these strategies may include:

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  7. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Center for PTSD. Self-help and coping.

Additional Reading

By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.